Category Archives: Family

Travels and touchstones…fifteen roses in memoriam

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I write this on my flight from Frankfurt to Bangalore. The sun streams in as we fly over Budapest. We pass Munich, cross the Danube, Rome is off south. It’s time to return to Asia, time to be ‘home’. There’s much to reflect on these past few months, much joyful, but regrettably not all.

A Bollywood Masala serenades me as a pre-diner drink is served. The music is intoxicating and strangely in sync with my melancholy. It never fails to feel somewhat surreal, Gosh I’m on my way to India…and I live there. And this time especially, I just want to be there, in one place for more than a few weeks at a time.

I play one track over and over again. It is evocative and comforting. First I write, then simply sit and be. I reflect on this past week of a farewell to a loved, my brother-in-law, who passed away.

I glance at the book I’m reading and a quote from Rabindranath Tagore, India’s dearest writer, jumps off the page and resonates.

”If you cry because the sun has gone out of your life, your tears will prevent you from seeing the stars.”

I left India just over two months ago to attend a conference in The Hague, then onward to Canada, meeting up with my husband in Vancouver. On idyllic spring days there and in Victoria, and in the company of two of our sons and their girlfriends, we strolled beaches, soaked up the sun on wind-swept piers and walked drizzly streets under cherry blossomed canopies. We drank in the beauty and the calm, the sublime balances of city life surrounded by mountain vistas, forested coastlines and the endless Pacific Ocean.

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Staying just a stone’s throw away from ‘the kids’, we took pleasure from sharing everyday things; signing a new lease, early morning rock-climbing, late night games and long chats. As for many of us, time with our grown children is painfully finite. Each visit is treasured.

DSCF0160Back at our home base, we got down to practicalities. The lawn cried out for raking to usher spring growth, layers of dust counted the months since our last visit and the deck beckoned us to sit and luxuriate. During respites in a favourite chair, I looked longingly at my deserted flower pots, begging for summer blooms. But in vain; we won’t return until August.

There was time with good neighbours and friends; hiking, walking and conversation. Yet it wasn’t long before it was time to close up the house and I did what I do each time I leave, what I’ve done for the past eight years. I sign my own guest book. Here from such and such a place, date, did this and that…chronicling those everyday moments that comprise life.

Having delayed my return to India I made my way with our middle son, Matt, to my parents for Mother’s day. We spent a weekend of games, seeing family and friends, lazed around an outdoor fire on a Sunday afternoon. We strolled through the garden picking tulips and the first of the asparagus – the apple tree is in abundant bloom, a heavenly canopy over the graves of family dogs. A tranquil weekend – simple joys of being home.

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And as if preparing and steeling me for the week before us, my final few days in Calgary were also comforting.

“Are you back in the city?” Carol asked not long after I’d arrived. “I’ve been thinking about you, can I see you before you leave?”

“Carol I’m glad you called, though I have sad news. Rod has passed away, I meet Bruce in London in a few days.”

“I’m on my way,” she said, “be right over.”

Carol is the sister I didn’t have and we rather like that we’re often mistaken for siblings. She is my touchstone. Same high school, same hometown, same cultural references. When I finished college our mothers arranged for us to live together. With a job secured, I packed up my ’77 Camaro and headed to the big city. We’ve been soulmates ever since– connected through life’s milestones. We know each other’s history like a well-read book.

DSCF0217When Carol walked half an hour later into our small condo in Calgary, suitcases lined the hallway. She offered her condolences and with a hug reminded me, “You get to leave again.” Tales of my global life are music to her ears.

Carol is also a traveller but now spends most of her time in Calgary, with a yearly buying trip to Asia for her importing business. I flit in and out of her life…if I’m honest, everyone’s life.

I commented on the scene outside as dusk approached on that warm spring evening – the emerging twinkling skyline, the milky turquoise river, the flow of walkers, cyclists and skateboarders, the couples nestled on park benches.

“But Carol you get to be here, in one place, see spring turn to summer, then autumn. I skip whole seasons and then plunk myself into life for a month or so. Always unpacking and packing, always on the move.” We have this conversation often, yet would either of us truly give up the life we have for the other?

The evening turned late, as is usual each time we’re together. There’s never enough time for the stories, the meanders, the laughter and this time the tears. Carol recently lost her mother and her pain is still at the surface and my heart breaks for her. “You can never know what it is to lose your mom until it happens.”

We meet again late the next afternoon and stroll until the evening turns dim. Sunnyside/Kensington is quirky, a mix of older homes and new. A pleasant sedate neighbourhood going about its business of life.

DSCF0233“It’s almost the end of May. How strange most homes still have a snow shovel on the front porch,” I remarked after yet another shovel belied the gorgeous weather.

“You know the saying,” Carol looked at me with a wry smile.

“I have no idea.”

Never put snow shovels away until the end of May,” she rhymed. “It tempts the weather to snow”. I had never heard this before and noted that many of the shovels seem to compliment the house perfectly, adding a splash of colour, almost completing the image of home.

Unlike my children who were raised globally, Carol and I have a hometown with the anecdotes and recollections to go with it. This is now more poignant than ever for her as sadly she was recently faced with dismantling her mother’s life. Having to go through the meaningful and the ‘just stuff’, the heartbreak of not only saying farewell to your loved one, but also to your family home. As we strolled in the evening hues over Calgary, I felt a certain calm in offering some solace and for her love and understanding of what was on the horizon for me and my husband.

Having only returned to India a week previously, my husband headed back west and met me in London. Our long embrace at Heathrow Airport was the calm before the storm, the balm for the soul. The four hour drive to Wales seemed unusually long, but we were together. We had no choice but to start brainstorming, start planning…

Rod had made his way south as a young man, following his profession from Scotland to Welsh Wales (as he lovingly referred to it). He never left. With his untimely death came the painful realization that it was up to the two of us to plan and host his funeral, and clear his home.

Arriving at the house for the first time was wrenching, signs of Rod’s interrupted life were stark reminders of the fragility of time. The new bags of potting soil and gardening tools, a carefully chosen cherry tree and parsley already abundant were particularly poignant. Not knowing what to do, we did what we felt was right. We lit a candle, chose a good bottle of wine and pulled out one of Rod’s many c.d’s. We’re sure he would have been pleased and with tears welling, we offered up a toast to him and to the house – the last time it would be a home. The next day everything would change.

All those things he valued, collected or just ‘stuff’ had to be dispersed. It is somber and admittedly tedious, and I suspect it isn’t often when one only has six days from start to finish. Perhaps that somehow made it easier.

We only managed with the help of family and good friends. In the midst of it, there was the paper work, meeting the pastor, arranging the funeral, writing the order of service and the eulogy. We secured a bagpiper, we ordered flowers.

“We’d like white roses, some thistle to represent Scotland, something for Wales, but a natural, wild look.”

“I think I understand what you’d like, a scruffy look,” the florist reassured calmly.

“Yes, perfect.” I was relieved, then chose a ribbon that best matched the family tartan.

The two scruffy bouquets were simply perfect.

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And finally we were able to honour our Roderick Wilson. The bagpiper welcomed and moved many to tears – the haunting, rousing strains reached into souls, touching innermost emotions. My husband delivered an eulogy that was eloquent and powerful, honouring a man that despite blindness and ill health, had poured his heart into his church community and friends.

An after service ‘tea’ at the church with an array of baked goods spoke of community and the indelible connection of life. “Ah my nephew is out in Canada.” “I work with the church in India, come see us when you get to Calcutta.” “We’ll miss our Rod,” we heard over and over again. Rod’s trusty and beloved guide dog, Neena, was with us throughout. She will officially retire on June 1st and is with a loving family; a celebration is planned for her.

The beautiful day was infused with the comfort of my husband’s cousins from Scotland. “It wasn’t a question of coming or not, of course we’d be here,’ they said without hesitation. Jean and Christine grew up five doors down from my husband’s family home. The lush bluebell woods behind their homes was their playground. An idyllic place where the trees had names like Thunderbird and Big Ben.

“We were always together it was the perfect childhood, pet,” Jean told me in her warm Scottish accent that placed me back with my late mother-in-law.

“That’s what Isa used to call the boys,” I remembered fondly. Along with the comfort of family and their unreserved love, Jean and Christine brought a piece of Scotland to Wales.

The day of the funeral culminated with an intimate gathering of close friends and family. At one of his favourite restaurants, we toasted our dear Rod and when his ashes arrived we toasted again. We’re quite sure his off-beat sense of humour would have enjoyed the scene. We strolled in the early evening down to the water, hand in hand, arm in arm. Past the comfort of an aged stone wall, past spring flowers and the promise of new beginnings.

The tartan ribbon was unfastened and the scruffy bouquet was our solace, one most perfect of white roses for each of us. “Please say a few words as the ashes and your rose meet the water’, my husband asked.

And we did. “Thank you for your love and help raising me,” Thank you for your humour and friendship.” “I’ll miss you.” “You have three nephews who love you and the Wilson name lives on, dear brother-in-law.’  There was grief and sadness, there was laughter, new friendships and rekindled family bonds. It was a soulful, fitting farewell.

IMG_3746 (1)Fifteen roses, a loved one’s ashes, and a few Scottish thistles drifted peacefully out to sea. In remembrance of a life and good deeds done. And that seems all we can ask for; to live, to love, to have loved ones remember and speak well of us when our time comes. To be there for those who need comforting.

It isn’t often that you truly contemplate how you’d like to be honoured when the time comes, but I know I would chose a day like we had in Wales. Despite the loss, it was a time of family, friends and tenderness. One of poignancy and meaning, one of gladness for what was.

And perhaps for those of us who live globally, time seems ever more precious as our parents age, as we miss our worldwide friendships, as our children live their own lives. Visits home are never long enough, yet we look forward to returning to that other life, that other ‘home’. It’s a fine balance of sacrifices and abundance, of memories and goodbyes; never does it strike you more than after losing a loved one.

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As I finish writing, the captain announces that it will soon be time to land. I feel a tap on my shoulder. “How has the flight been Mom?”

It’s one of Rod’s nephews, our dear son Matt. He’s on his way with me, his new journey to spend some time with us and do some travelling. I’m looking forward to being ‘home’ again and I’m thankful it will be with one more family member…

Family, friendships, home, journeys, farewells and time spent with loved ones…really just life. Embrace it.

A finely stacked woodpile, skating in the Canadian outdoors…welcoming the New Year

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“Birch is most definitely the cadillac of wood, kept us warm growing up,” Ian tells me, fondly recalling winters of his prairie youth. We and a dozen others are gathered around a crackling bonfire in British Columbia on New Year’s Eve day. Stacked in the fresh snow is a pile of wood …readied to keep the fire ablaze.

Despite a temperature of -12 Celsius, the late afternoon gathering is lively and it feels perfectly natural to socialize in the beautiful outdoors. Neighbours wander up with a drink and a ‘Happy New Year’ on their lips, many clutching a pair of skates.

For beyond the fresh air and the chance to greet friends, the other attraction is the open-air skating rink. A few meters from where we’re gathered, the glassy stretch of ice beckons as keenly as a deep-blue pool of water…if you’re a skater that is.

Skating on outdoor ice is a hallmark of Canadian winters, about as idyllic as it gets. Two of my sons are with us and they can’t get their skates on fast enough. Having played hockey in various countries we’ve called home – Oman, Dubai, Norway, the U.S. – the opportunity to strap on the ‘blades’ in the Canadian outdoors is part of their identity. But perhaps that is over-thinking it… it’s just unbridled joy.

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Snow shovels ready at the outdoor rink, near Kimberley BC

They glide and weave effortlessly over the frozen pond. They and longtime friends grab hockey sticks and shoot pucks at the net, shouting into the cold December air, Feels so great to be out here! For a longtime hockey mom, it is music to my ear-muffed ears on this last day of 2016.

We’ve delighted in seeing countless outdoor rinks this holiday season in the small towns in our area…Cranbrook, Fernie and Kimberley. This is what you do. It’s how many families spend time together, building traditions all the while. Perhaps the rink is the setting for a date or where you just ‘hang out’ and meet friends. Or maybe you play a game of shinny – pond hockey – with whoever happens to be around. It’s all of this and more; it’s part of being from the ‘great white north’. This is where the deep and abiding love of skating and hockey is born in the hearts of many Canadians.

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Skating in Fernie, BC

My own boys learned to skate on Grandpa’s pond. On visits home for Christmas the first question was usually, “How’s the ice Grandpa, can we skate?” If the answer was ‘yes’, out came the wide snow shovels. Back and forth they were pushed, clearing the snow for action…anticipation rising as each strip of ice revealed itself.

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A Sunday afternoon in Cranbrook, BC

Countless hours were spent with family on that frozen wonderland. The grind and rasp of metal blades on the uneven surface, the crack and thunk of a flexing ice sheet, the elated shouts of kids at play, the bark of dogs chasing the puck…the sounds of winter ingrained in our memories. And now for life, the guys can enjoy a day like today and feel at home on the ice.

With dusk approaching, more people arrive and I smile at a small girl on the bench at the edge of the ice. Her mother is lacing up her figure skates and she’s clearly excited. The ice is busy, yet the skaters will be mindful of a beginner; memories of learning how to skate stay with you. It’s tough. You stumble, you fall, you get back up over and over again until you get it. And then, like riding a bike, the sense of freedom and satisfaction it brings is thrilling.

Back at the bonfire, I continue the discussion of wood with Ian and our good friend Nolan.img_1740 The brothers grew up in Saskatchewan where a weighty stack of wood got you through the biting cold winters.

“Birch is ideal,” the two confirm, adding some science to their assertion. “It doesn’t spit, good energy density and it burns hot.”

I admit that I had ‘smuggled’ some ornamental birch logs into my shipment when we left Norway and on reflection, it had always burned well in our classic Norwegian fireplace.

Some treasured pieces of it now happen to be part of my decor in India, of all places. Perhaps like the wooden skis propped in our office, the birch reminds me of my roots. Of growing up in cold winters; in the snow, on a ski hill, on the ice and yes, often huddled cozily around a fireplace. But there’s far more to wood than meets the eye. “Did you know that the chopping and stacking of wood can be a bit of an obsession in Norway, even takes on an art form,” I offer as someone adds more pinewood to the bonfire.

Yes, apparently it’s common knowledge that wood will dry well if there’s enough space for a mouse to run hither and tither throughout the pile. And stacking that wood is not to be taken lightly. Different types of wood should be stacked accordingly and in Norway, besides the practical piles like a sun-wall pile, there’s a round stack, a closed square, a standing round stack or the v-shape pile. Who knew?

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There are also the sculptured woodpiles. I have learned that wood, with its complex hues, also offers an outlet for creativity that one might not expect. The end of a pice of oak is a deep brown. Pine and spruce radiate yellow tones with a little help from the sun, whereas cut ends of elm, aspen and maple display as muted whites. And apparently the rich alder is also a sought-after shade for stacking aficionados.

It seems there’s no end to woodsy creativity, One might ‘sculpt’ a massive fish or even a portrait of the king and queen. I recall that while we lived in Stavanger a retired engineer had created a woodpile portrait of Queen Sonja and King Harold V, in tribute of the king’s seventy-fifth birthday. This masterpiece had been preceded by a portrait of a composer and a likeness of the local mayor. How wonderful to find creativity in wood (and gain a bit of notoriety!)

Yet if it that all sounds a little mundane, there is something far more rousing about woodpiles. “Ok gentlemen,” I joke with my friends at the bonfire, “by any chance did your prospective wives happen to inspect your woodpile before they said yes?” There’s a reason I’m asking of course.

In the late nineteenth century in the American state of Maine, it is reported that young women might determine the suitability of a husband by the condition of his woodpile. Call it a folksy tradition or not, but the general rule was thus:

img_3066Upright and solid pile: the same could be said of the man.

Low pile: a good cautious man but could be shy or weak.

Unusual shape: freethinking and maybe an open spirit but construction could be weak.

Not much wood: be ready for a life from hand to mouth.

Unfinished pile, some logs here and there: unstable, lazy, maybe prone to drink?

Old and new wood together: be suspicious, might be some stolen wood there.

No woodpile: forget it, there must be more suitable candidates!

I think of the wood pile at the back of our mountain home. No it surely isn’t perfect, but the wood has been enthusiastically chopped. At our house you never have to ask twice to have firewood, our guys relish the opportunity to channel their inner woodsman. There’s no question they find a certain satisfaction in the process.

It is said that chopping your own wood is therapeutic and contemplative, even atavistic. A chance to wield an axe, use brute power – a gratifying correlation between effort and output.

Back in 1854 in his book Walden, Henry Thoreau extolled the virtues of not only chopping wood but living a simple life in natural surroundings. It was Thoreau who observed that wood warms twice over, once when you chop it and again when you burn it.

A seemingly simple observation that just happens to be inscribed on a small cushion in our home. Filled with pine needles, it evokes the spirit of the outdoors and nature’s simple pleasures.

I’m curious to see how our neighbourhood measures up in the wood stacking department. I notice finely-stacked woodpiles and logs waiting to be split and chopped, all protected by snow-clad trees and cabin eaves. This is the kind of place where snowboards, skis, snowshoes and sleds lean against houses, fond embrace of the mountain lifestyle. It’s where snow piles high, gathering on roofs and resting on tamarack, pine and birch. Indeed, the reminders are everywhere…embrace nature’s beauty.

We said our farewells, hung up the snowshoes and covered our not-so finely stacked woodpile. Now from our other home in India, restored to face the challenges and the new opportunities the year will bring, I wish you all a joyful and fulfilled New Year. I hope you’ll revel in the beauty of nature…wherever you may be…Terry Anne

The joy of womanhood and a Tante…of tulips and hofjes in Amsterdam

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IMG_2279Her name was Klara. She was a true Amsterdammer who rowed the Amstel and cruised the cobbled streets, stylish and carefree on the back of her paramour’s motorcycle.

That was many years ago, just after the second world war, long before she succumbed to old age and a mind stripped of precious memories.

I thought of her this past trip as I strolled from my hotel to the FIGT Conference in Amsterdam. I not only luxuriated in the cool air, but in the Anton Pieck perfection of doll-like houses along serene canals. I take my level of comfort here for granted, yet I owe much of that to Klara who shared it with me eagerly from my first visit.

Not long out of college, I fell head over heels for this city of Rembrandt and IMG_2219Golden Age architecture, of stout upright bikes and tulips in infinite bunches…of tall homes with gables of necks, steps and bells.

From her simple, postage-stamp sized home, Klara seldom joined me, but would send me forth with explicit directions to explore. Then on my return, would relish in every little detail.

To my delight, Klara’s book-shelf was stuffed with musty history books of Amsterdam that I would thumb through, then return exactly to where I had found them. In a small space, everything has its place and she liked things just so; we were quite similar it seems. Klara could be stubborn and delightfully opinionated (a little like all of the women in our family), but she grabbed life and dangled it enticingly before you.

IMG_2490I keenly felt tante (aunt) Klara’s absence one chilly day of exploring. I warmed in a simple cafe; one that serves mushy pea soup and burns long stemmed candles on scratched, worn tables. One where velvet curtains encircle the entrance to keep out the draft and the locals linger over a Heineken.

I longed to practice my Dutch with my great-aunt as I always had and explore with her this neighbourhood that I found myself in, the Jordaan. This had been a working class neighbourhood, where the tanneries once bustled, where masons and road builders had lived. Where stone carvings on building fronts tell stories even today…ah, there lived a cobbler, a builder, a mason, a cooper, or a seller of hot water and heated bricks so you could warm your feet when the fog and damp settled over the canals and froze you to the bone.

IMG_2494These chiseled cartouches implore us to slow down and conjure that time. I come across shops that aren’t fancy and offer ‘stuff’ spullen, places where one can browse endlessly. I see a vision of Klara’s home that once proudly displayed all the trinkets gifted to her…I wonder what happened to it all.IMG_2453

Yet as much as I miss Klara, I hear her Dutch accent echoed in other women that I have the pleasure to meet during my stay. I’m befriended by Patricia at the Van Loon Museum; her English has the same cadence and warmth.

“Are you enjoying the exhibit?” she asks as I’m intently perusing faded receipts from Parisian corset and lingerie shops. They’re arrayed beside an ‘evening wear diary’…so vital was it to not repeat frocks and evening gowns in the social whirl of a wealthy Dutch family at the turn of the century.

Patricia and I continue together and marvel at the exquisiteness of the Mode Exhibit. We appreciate collections of jewellery and fine beaded handbags, then transfix on lush fabric wall-covering that adorns this stately mansion. We admire the chandeliers, detailed family portraits and even modern-day tulips and perfumed roses. I brim over with the richness of, simply…beautiful things.

I sense Patricia is familiar with the giddy lifestyle of cocktail parties, soirees and lovely homes as she relates her ‘swinging’ Paris days. She’s a striking, refined lady of a ‘certain age’ which she reveals to me over a cup of strong Dutch coffee.

“I’ve had it all,”Patricia tells me, “now my life is art galleries, museums and concerts.” It seems this cultured life suits us both and as if to prove it, she implores…

IMG_2207“If you like this, you must see the Catwalk IMG_2192Exhibit at the Rijksmuseum.” Off we go on a sun drenched, yet brisk day, to soak up yet more exquisite fabrics and designs. Gathered from centuries past, as early as the Golden Age when Dutch culture was at its zenith, the creations rotate slowly on an long oblong stage, as if on a sumptuous sushi belt. Enthusiasts of all ages sit at this avant garde fashion show, coveting the delicate, aged designs.

IMG_2241 (1)“Oh how my Tante Klara would have loved this,” I proclaim to my fellow culture lover and relate how years ago Klara had given me a black lacy dress, sleeveless and hand-stitched. She had once worn it with panache; I was thrilled to have it as mine and wore it with infinite pleasure. Klara’s seamstress eye would have devoured this collection that was swirling slowly for appreciative fashion- lovers.

My new friend and I admire the ‘poster’ of the exhibition. Model Ymre Stickma’s image is super-imposed into a print of the voluptuous wedding dress, the elaborate ‘masterpiece’ of the collection. It’s captured by the renowned Dutch photographer, Erwin Olaf. He has her hair deliciously coiffed and her décolletage devilishly exposed; it was the ankles during that period that were seductive and kept hidden under heavy hems.

I take a photo of Olaf’s work, brilliant in its marrying of classic fashion with the vitality of a beautiful, empowered young woman. Prachtig, prachtig, I hear Tante Klara’s approval…superb, superb!

IMG_2214Through the following days I meet many empowered and interesting women. The Families in Global Transition Conference brings many together; they thrive in careers and raise children globally, they are entrepreneurs, authors, publishers, educators, life coaches and more. We network, learn from each other, dine, laugh and lament as one. We comment on how fortunate we are to come together, how marvellous it is to share stories of womanhood against the backdrop of a global life. We hug our farewells, restored and uplifted.

IMG_2506 (1)The company of these kindred spirits comforts me in this first return to Amsterdam; the first time that Klara is no longer here. The last few visits, dementia had stolen her spirit, her creative and inquisitive mind and just a few months ago, her life.

Late one afternoon a few of my friends and I are on our way to dinner. “Come with me,” I say,”there’s a special place I want to show you,” and I guide them off a busy street through a carved, stone archway that reads…Begijnhof. We emerge into a serene setting, the rattle of trams and the whirl of bicycles disappear. The courtyard is quaint with churches and houses that beg you to whisper and reflect.

This tucked-away sanctuary was similar to a monastery for women, the Beguines, a Christian religious order whose members lived in semi-monastic communities. First mentioned in 1346, the Begijnhof is the only medieval almshouse founded in Amsterdam. The last Beguine, Sister Antonia, died here in 1971 and still today, all the inhabitants are female.

IMG_2375Klara first introduced me to this serene oasis, and as I was then, my friends are charmed with its beauty and calm. The houses and churches that line the square are mostly from the 17th and 18th centuries; beautiful in their aged grace as is the elderly lady we encounter.

Shielded from the chilled March air in a camel-coloured fur, she has just placed her walker at a solid wooden door. When we ask if she’s fortunate enough to live in this lovely Begijnhof, she nods and points to the first floor. Books crowd her window sill along with one of those simple brass candle holders…all framed by delicate lace curtains.

We introduce ourselves,”My name sounds much prettier in Hebrew, “she says with an engaging smile and she lingers to speak to us. “Where are you from,” she wants to know and her eyes twinkle even brighter when she hears that we come from various continents and yet live in others. Susan is inquisitive and delighted to hear this and then earnestly tells us to enjoy our time together. It warms my heart to know that these hofjes were once scattered throughout the city, sanctuaries for women.

IMG_2444 (1)A few days later I spend the day with a dear family friend, we were both fortunate to have been the children that Klara never had. Hetty tells me of her final days and the peaceful end.

We had planned this gathering to reminisce. “These are for you,” Hetty says softly, motioning to an array of ‘stuff’ on her dining table…it’s heartwarming that it remains.

There are photos albums with dried flowers from my wedding and pressed heather from a trip to Scotland; moments in time. There’s a tea cup from a visit to Canada and tarnished silver spoons embellished with Delft blue and white.

“Choose some jewellery,” Hetty continues, “and I think you’ll like these.” A passel of thimbles lay close by and my finger-tips brush over the dimpled silver. I know that Klara used them often. She loved stitching and creating of all kinds; it’s what she ‘did.’

Just one woman’s pursuit that fulfilled and gave satisfaction. No, her creations weren’t as beautiful as the lovely things this trip has put before me, but that isn’t what’s important. Engaging in anything from stitching to poetry, from reading to golf, to quilting to hiking, …anything that we women pursue for pleasure, for the joy of womanhood is to be coveted and embraced.

IMG_2579The first thing I had done when I arrived in Amsterdam was to buy tulips, “I’ll need a vase for my bloomen, please Meneer,” I said to my host Pierre when I checked in at the charming Seven Bridges Hotel. As if by design, my room had thick velvet curtains, an armoire and an antique oval table for those tulips and at which to sit and enjoy an evening aperitif. I felt as if I was back at Klara and Alberts, my mothers beloved uncle.

Before departing from the city that I adore and returning to my new home in India, I posted a card to my mother in Canada.

As a ten year-old, she had waved farewell on the S.S. Waterman as her family sailed away for a new life, leaving not only their family but also country behind. She remembers doubting that she’d ever see them, or the Netherlands again. Happily, they have both been a special part of our lives through the years.

That card to my mother was decorated with tulips and I penned the details to her; of remembering Klara, the lovely mementos and time with Hetty, and that she had most certainly been there with me in spirit…it seems that Klara had been as well.

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They’ll be home…where the garden is, where memories live

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The pond, for fishing and skating

Our evening stroll offered swooping owls, waddling ducks and darting dogs. The sun sunk low into a newly planted field that borders the acreage, we call it home…’the farm.’ I’ve made my way back to Canada to surprise my parents for their 40th Anniversary, returning to a plot of land that embodies nature’s bounty, a lifetime of work and more memories than can be captured on film. But there’s no need; the images are imprinted on our hearts, embedded into our collective family memory.

This land, a grain field forty years ago, is now an oasis with towering blue and white spruce, and ponderosa pine that shelter from howling north winds. The grass is verdant this spring, its rich emerald hue a backdrop for flowers in bloom, golden spurge and delicate May Day trees.

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At the garden shed

These are the prairies of Western Canada where settlers have arrived for the past few hundred years; enticed by fertile farm land, hopeful for idyllic homesteads and new beginnings.

From their European homelands they ventured by ship, uncertain of what the future held. They journeyed onward by train, along the newly laid Canadian Pacific Railway, disembarking at communities across this vast country.

As with my mother’s family in the ’50’s, many arrived from the Netherlands, risking all for a new life; hard work and toil yielded success. Proud, new citizens in a welcoming land. Some settlers trekked from the east or the U.S. in caravans of wagons, stacked high with furniture and family. The wagon parked on the acreage from my father’s family, is a proud reminder of their storied journey. Now a backdrop for a yellow rose bush, it was once a means of transport. A working wagon for hauling hay, feed, grain to elevators.

Quiet country roads

Quiet country roads

In my family, you garden, work in the yard, grow things, landscape and stroll the land; just as our ancestors have done. Is it in your blood, this need to commune with the land, I feel it is. I felt it wouldn’t be spring for me until I could dig a little, plant, walk the dogs along scented lilacs and quiet country roads.

And so, I’ve come home to my parents and I find them where they should be…where I’m delighted to be.

They’re ambling below dreamy blue skies, dogs nudging at their sides and geese gliding over sky. I’ve found them plucking asparagus, planting gladiolas and poking hollyhock seeds into tilled earth. It’s time to cut first grass, take the ‘storm plastic’ off and let the deck breath, prepare the planters and the ‘beds’. Soon the kitchen table will display their bounty; bouquets of lupins, tulips, dahlias, peonies, lilacs and glads.

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Tulips in bloom

My parents awaken, work and stroll to a symphony of cooing, cawing; a melody of birds. Plump robins, doves, meadowlarks and elusive owls. Partridges, pheasants, hawks and cowbirds chirp and squawk. Butterflies flutter and bees flit past, en route to blossoms and buds.

Where grandchildren played and played

Where grandchildren played and great- grandchildren now play

Under billowy clouds, skunks duck into warrens and gophers tunnel, deer prance through fields past gangly hares. The dogs wait patiently on a weathered deck as we have a ‘wee dram’ at dear, long time neighbours. Storm clouds brew, awakening our senses as we rush home through the shelter belt of trees.

These glorious days of spring find us reminiscing of grandchildren that grew up in this haven of outdoor activity. My children who were raised on different continents, came here…to be home.

Towering elms

Towering elms

Here, with cousins, they learned how to skate on a frozen pond and ‘hold on tight’ for tractor-drawn sleigh rides. How to build snow forts and duck snowballs. Summers passed in perpetual movement…running barefoot over green lawns, soaked and squealing. ‘Secret missions’ played out through trees and fields. Golf carts, bikes and trikes circled the yard, eager for an adventure.

It’s here they played ball, built campfires and gazed at a million stars. Where Grandpa taught them how to fish, to golf, to ‘drive a standard’ in a rusty, green pickup truck. Where Grandma ensured they knew how to play ‘Texas Hold Em’, sing ‘Hollandse leidjes’ and bake waffle cookies. Yes, it’s here they came to bond with family, find their roots, to become…Canadian.

This oasis has been a constant in our lives, a refuge on the beloved flatlands of the prairies. I find my parents offering the same inviting hospitality that has always been for my family, since the day I was married…here, on this land. The elms and pines are taller now, the wagon more weathered and the kitchen table a little scuffed from hearty meals and lively gatherings.

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Grandfather’s wagon

And as it was recently when I crept into their home from halfway around the world, it was as always, gezillig…that Dutch word for cozy. The surprise was genuine; as were the friends and family here to celebrate these two special people. I know we’re fortunate to live and travel the world. Yet, we have a haven to come home to…it’s just east of Barnwell*, Alberta, Canada. And my parents, I’ll find them here…home.

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An Anniversary surprise

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The colour of beehives

*Barnwell is not named after a barn and a well, but after William Barnwell who immigrated from England. His family dates back to the Baron de Barnwell who came from Normandy with William the Conqueror in 1066

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An early spring bouquet

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The neighbour’s barn

A poppy for Sarah…

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A haunting line in Sarah Jane’s letter spoke to me as I stood at the Tower of London this September. “I picked up the paper and the wind turned it over, when to my dismay Will’s name stared me in the face, he had been killed.”

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The Tower of London with its sea of poppies

As I watched volunteers ‘plant’ ceramic poppies into the grassy moat, I felt her devastating loss, as must the other families represented in the 888,246 poppies. The artistic installation entitled ‘Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red’ filled the Tower’s moat, creating a powerful visual commemoration for the First World War Centenary.  Each poppy symbolizes the life of a British or Commonwealth soldier, like that of Sarah’s young husband killed in France.  It was 1916 and the young widow was left to raise their four young children alone; Sarah was my father’s grandmother. Her letter penned only two months after William King’s death, reveals a loving, brave young woman. I wish I could have known her.

Dated October 25th, 1916, Sarah wrote to her family in England where she had been raised in Marsh Gibbon, Buckinghamshire.  The letter is soulful and poignant, a young mother finally able to convey on paper what had befallen her happy family, “like some horrible night-mare that is past but not forgotten.”

Sarah and William with their four children, my grandmother lies on her mother's lap

Sarah and William with their four children, my grandmother lies on her mother’s lap

That long ago day in August 1916, after stepping onto her porch to fetch the newspaper, a gust of wind opened the page that revealed her husband’s name… deceased.  She kept it to herself, willing it to be a mistake.  Sarah wrote, ” Still I had nothing official, so I did no more but wire to the War Office and ask for information at once, but the torture of suspense of two days and three nights, no sleep nor could I eat. But you could not wish for a more merciful death.  He was shot through the heart, he was not fighting.”

Sarah would soon learn that William had died from a sniper’s bullet as he dug trenches; those muddy, rat infested warrens that offered scant protection for the front line troops.  She would receive a cloth game of checkers that was found in her Will’s front breast pocket when he perished; his blood staining the centre of it.  I like to think that it was a comfort to her, holding something of his that was with him at the end.

I also imagine the desire for her to return to her family in England must have been overwhelming at times, though she wrote, “I don’t know what I shall do yet, but I shall not come back to England to stay, for Will took every precaution to leave us comfortably provided for in case of him being hurt or killed. It would be silly to wave it all on one side.”  She seemed resilient and practical, all the while ensuring her husband’s efforts were not abandoned in death.

Sarah's letter dated 1916

Sarah’s letter dated 1916

I envision her sitting down to write after tucking her four children into bed, perhaps the cloak of loss and loneliness slipping off her shoulders ever so slightly.  “I’ll tell you I am very proud of him and hold my head very high for he was one of the very best of husbands and fathers…I was simply awful for weeks and I didn’t care what became of us.  We have four bonny children and I marvel sometimes that I ever lived through it.”

Despite her grief, Sarah wrote that she hadn’t been against William going to war if he wanted to and that “someone must step in to defend the atrocities, we would find it difficult if no one came to our assistance.”  Even with her loss she was able to reconcile the sacrifice as so many women were forced to do during the First World War.

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Sarah’s grandchildren with their father Albert, my father is far right

Women suddenly joined the workforce; they became munition workers and bankers, took over the fields and shops, drove trucks and became postmasters.  They had no choice but to join the war effort, urged on by Queen Mary’s appeal to the ‘Women of the Empire” which urged all patriotic women to do their part in the war.  She encouraged women of all ranks and ages to unite for the cause in the Mother Country and the Empire.  Women’s participation in the paid workforce between 1911 and 1921 increased dramatically as they learned trades and skills. Widows like Sarah were often thrust into challenging new roles, while also having the daunting task of raising their children as single parents.

And yet she wrote, “I don’t get much time to get blue, I can always find something to do to help others. I have two babies extra now as their mother has been taken to the hospital…and I went for them and thought how helpless and forlorn their house looked without a mother. And so I thanked God it was Will taken and not me and we should not grumble.”

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Sarah Jane’s sampler, stitched in 1893

I find it remarkable that these selfless sentiments were written only two months after her husband’s death.  I picture Sarah busy with her four young children, able to reconcile her situation as she went about her daily tasks. The loneliness of the evenings however must have weighed heavily and I suspect she spent many of those nights darning, knitting or stitching.  She was a cross stitcher above all, a skill she learned at the age of eight as her sampler* stitched in 1893 declares.  Her name, Sarah Jane Parker, is stitched proudly at the top, followed with a prayer.  It hangs in my parents home, brought with her when she boarded the ship that carried her to a new life in Canada. Perhaps it was stowed in her steam trunk with the expectation of it decorating the bride to be’s new home. Her love of this craft was passed on to her daughters including her youngest child Sadie, my grandmother, who would also leave a legacy of beautifully stitched works.

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Albert Campbell, a WWI veteran that would marry Sadie, some twenty years later

What Sarah couldn’t know at the time of William’s death was that her youngest, Sadie, would one day marry a man twenty years older than herself.  This man had fought in the same war as her father and it’s extraordinary to me that both my father’s grandfather and father, Albert Campbell, fought in World War I.  Only one came home. Through the bravery shown by Sarah, her children had the love as if of two parents.  Sadly however, that would be short lived.

In 1923 at only thirty-eight years old, the local newspaper announced that ‘Veteran’s Heroic Wife is Buried.’  It reported that many journeyed to attend the funeral of the late Mrs. Sarah Jane King.  She had undergone a serious operation five weeks earlier, but succumbed to complications.  The article mentions that ‘she had strived heroically to keep her little family together after her husband’s death.’

Sarah’s letter is one of many written archives that live on, as well as countless poems from that time.  I’ve come across a young Canadian woman Phebe Florence Miller, a poet and postmistress from Newfoundland.  During a long artistic life, she wrote many poems that capture the tragedy of the ‘Great War.’  Her poignant verse captures the courage, hard work and stoicism of many women.  She echoed Sarah’s words when she wrote..

Can we have lived through it all?

Or was it some dream we dreamed?

Gleaming memorial shafts give us our answer.

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My father, Curtis King Campbell at William’s grave in Ypres, Belgium.

Those Memorials exist in almost every Canadian community and beg us to stop and remember, to respect the sacrifices. My parents have visited Yperes, Belgium, where William King was laid to rest.  Every evening since that war’s end, a bugle mournfully calls out to honour the fallen.  Sarah did not visit it, nor her children, yet I know my parents felt the weight of all the loved ones they represented as they stood at Corporal William King’s war grave.

I felt it as well as I gazed out over that ‘sea of poppies’ in London, knowing a family member was represented.  I’ve since claimed one for the family…one of the almost 900,000 ‘remembrances’  that have been boxed up and shipped out to the ‘Colonies’.  It will be a remembrance in my parent’s home…a tribute to that handsome young man who gladly answered the call of duty to King and Country.

*A sampler is a stitching that was common for young girls to undertake at school, teaching them the skill of cross stitching.

It Takes A Village…

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It occurred to me at the #FIGT conference, that I had never referred to my three sons as TCK’s or third culture kids.* Listening to the varied educators, authors and specialists at the conference, I came to understand why I hadn’t done this. I wanted them to be ‘normal’.

So despite having lived in seven countries, having had different experiences AND losing their friends every three, four or six years, they were supposed to be like any other child. What I realized throughout the conference is that excellent support and care exists for expat families who live overseas. There is often a need for this. I’m thankful that for the most part, my three coped fairly well. However partly what FIGT is concerned with and facilitates, is that for many children and their parents, this global life can be challenging, confusing and leave kids without a sense of belonging to any country.

Three children raised by a global village

As parents we feel guilty that they may not have a home town to call their own. We worry that they only see extended family during holidays. We fret that they don’t have ownership to any one place, even their home country feels alien at times.

And yet as the esteemed Dr. Fanta Aw reminded us during her keynote speech at FGIT...it takes a village to raise a child. And this is precisely what we do as global parents. We pull out all the resources to ensure that our kids have a sense of home in which ever country they’re living in; parents, teachers, coaches and volunteers all contribute to raising expat children. We all become their village.

My husband and I created a sense of normality (from a Canadian’s viewpoint) by starting and coaching a baseball league in Oman. I wasn’t pleased that my boys may not grow up playing baseball and so with the help of passionate coaches and parents, I started a baseball league. We soon had over one-hundred kids from all over the world playing. Some of these families also helped with the hockey team, also a first to be formed in the stifling heat of Muscat. Our coach, Teppo Virta, will always be a hero in the eyes of my boys.

I was overwhelmed years later when one of my sons depicted me as a ‘hero’ for facilitating their desire to play a sport that wouldn’t have been possible. I had only done what many of us do for our children in foreign lands; form and nurture clubs and organizations of every description. For we know that when children grow up globally, it’s even more important that they belong to something that represents their home culture and identity.

As Dr. Aw, reminded us, “It’s an intersection of experiences, relationships and friendships that become family.  It’s the people that claimed you in good and bad.” And that is what a village does. Be it physical or not, as in the case of many global families, our extended family has helped raise our cherished children. We ask so much of these resilient kids; arriving, living and leaving so many countries. And yet if we all do our part to help raise them, the ‘village’ is a pretty good place to be.

I recently asked one of my sons if he would change anything from his overseas childhood. “No mom, look at the experiences and opportunities that I’ve had. Not to mention the friends I have all over the world.”

Yes, all part of that village that we’re fortunate indeed to be a part of.

*Note, a TCK is defined as a person who has spent a significant part of his/her development years outside their parents’ culture.  As summarized in Linda A. Janssen’s informative book, The Emotionally Resilient Expat published by Summertime Publishing